The first few days of a COP is all about finding one’s way around the labyrinth of locations designed to cope with a meeting of 195 countries, each with its own agenda and priorities. For the host country their logistics end at the point at which delegates enter the building. Thereafter the United Nations take over the administration and security. This works well in most COPs but comes under severe stress when a particularly big event comes along.

COP15 in Copenhagen was one such event and COP26 in Glasgow is shaping up to match it. The queue for entry each morning is around an hour as the security checks prove incapable of handling the crowds that descend on the venue. The first check is fine. The 25,000 registered participants are required to upload a negative Covid test on the National Health Service website each morning, and this has to be displayed on phones or paper. The third check on accreditation is also rapid. The lost hour comes from the queue for the security machines and this sEems likely to worsen as numbers build up, making this a difficult COP for many.

The first week is also one in which few decisions are made. The Heads of Government get their allotted 3 minutes to extoll their efforts in tackling climate change. Of course only good news is imparted. The broken promises are seldom acknowledged and the new promises are presented as if they were already achieved. The long list of speakers, ranging from the host Boris Johnson, and various Princes, Presidents, Sheiks and Prime Ministers all expressed the view that the world was running out of time or “digging our own grave”  as the Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres starkly put it.

One of the big decisions this week was an agreement, involving approximately 100 countries, that a global cut of 30% in emissions of the extremely potent gas methane would be achieved by  2030. This was a bit unexpected and had been brokered by the US and EU in advance of the summit. It was a reflection of the seriousness now given to methane reductions following the recent IPCC report. In signing up to this, Ireland’s Taoiseach Micheal Martin however disavowed Ireland’s responsibility to match this target. It’s the kind of response, emphasising national self interest, that has bedeviled progress in tackling climate change for a generation and more. Promises and pledges play well on the international stage, but they are for others to implement when national politics intervene.

Of course the COP has its stalwarts: John Kerry and Al Gore from the US, Xie Zhenhua from China and our own Mary Robinson. The celebrities from Hollywood also feature – so far Leonardo DiCaprio has been spotted. However, it is Greta and David Attenburgh who attract the biggest crowds and provide a contrast between the dry language of  position papers and the reality of the emergency situation the world faces. But perhaps the real contrast is between the negotiators in their sober business suits and the activists of civil society. This year civil society and observers are being excluded as never before from entry to open plenary sessions on ‘Covid’ grounds. This is particularly unfortunate for what is the largest ever contingent of Irish NGOs who have at their own expense made the journey and faced up to the sometimes exorbitant accommodation demands made of them.

The most disappointing news so far is that India, the world’s 3rd largest polluter, will not target achieving Carbon neutrality for half a century and China, the world’s 1st, not before 2060. Unless these positions change over the next week it is difficult to see the objective of “Keeping alive the 1.5” succeeding. It’s such a contrast to the likes of Denmark which aims for a 70% reduction in emissions by 2030. Perhaps the most poignant statement of their predicament  came from the tiny Marshall Islands, a nation that sits just two metres above sea level. Will they be there in 50 years they ask? Is it acceptable to write off a country, is a question we in the developed world might well consider?

Prof. John Sweeney